Designing Small Gardens

Despite the limited size of a small garden, there is a wide variety of options open to the owner and I have tried to demonstrate some of these. The imagination is limitless so my ideas here cannot be totally comprehensive, and I have therefore made personal choices, covering familiar types and styles as well as new ideas and developments.

Firstly, I should say, that to me, garden design is an art form. It may be unconsciously or consciously enjoyed as such, but it is not simply about horticulture. Nor is it about rectangles of grass surrounded by borders. Most gardeners want more than this, but many are unclear about their own intentions. I hope that by selecting gardens with quite different aims, you will be able to consolidate their own ideas.

Can garden design be only about what you want? Well, regrettably not. It would be difficult to grow Mediterranean plants in cooler latitudes or plant a swamp cypress in a container on a roof garden. Of course we accept this, but I should emphasize here that practicalities are fundamental; I mention, for example, ‘user-friendly’ gardens, and also the requirements for front gardens which have to share space with dustbins and the car. Real constraints do exist and cannot be ignored.

This is a tall order. The gardener has to be aware of the many influential factors which will affect the ultimate look of his or her garden. The land may be very flat; the aspect may well be dominated by neighbouring buildings; the soil could be starved; there will be underground drains and cables. Much has to be considered, and so within my site I will discuss the problems peculiar to a range of different sites and illustrate some of the artful adaptations which are possible.

It is the aesthetic ideals of designing a small garden which are my concern in this section and I have aimed to show how people can achieve this in highly individual ways. After all, when you get down to it the main concern of a gardener is, essentially, how the garden will look.

By using the right design principles, individual garden styles can be realized effectively.

Gardens can be spiritually refreshing, and often are. In some cases this can be achieved by romantic, overflowing and bountiful planting, with rustic details, fragrances and fountains. The ‘secret gardens’ of childhood memories which soothe away troubles, and gardens of fantasy ‘with walls and towers girdled round’, are gardens of the imagination. Curtains of ivy can be lifted to reveal hidden wonders — gardens of the senses, planned with mystical associations. Romance can also be found when gardens remind us of times past, of other ages when ‘parterres’ and roses mingled with arbours, or of far-off places where the whole flavour of a garden style can be quite different.

I also cover how the practical requirements of easy maintenance can be combined with effective design and planting in a variety of ways, to create gardens which look good all year round with the minimum of care. Food growing is also a practical requirement for some, of course, so I also explain how to combine the fruit and vegetables with decorative planting and still feed the family — though no low maintenance here!

I also mention a garden devoted to the true plant lover. For very many people this is the most compulsive reason for creating a garden, but to make it beautiful, as well as botanically fascinating, requires considerable artistic flair.

A ‘tidy garden’, so often the garden-centre approach, need not be visually poor. If tidiness is really the aim this is easily achieved: slab the whole thing over, go indoors and forget it. Really? So tidiness is not actually the right word. I am reminded of the confusion at the hairdresser when the poor stylist is asked to create a ‘tidy style’. Why bother to go in? Why not have it all shaved? That is tidy. No, though customers do mean ‘neat’ and ‘easy to manage’, primarily they want it to be flattering. So too with the small garden, and especially the front garden. Often this ‘tidy’ requirement can be translated as ‘easy to care for’, ‘space for the car’, and ‘permanently attractive whatever the season’. All this can be achieved with style.

So often the small garden is treated rather conventionally and it seems to me that contemporary designs must be considered, just as ‘new’ architecture gradually impinges on everyday life.

Many people have gardens which are uniquely personal, like one I have seen where the owner made his own concrete slabs and pressed family mementoes into them as they set: coins, pieces of china, a tiny child’s car, a set of buttons, little hand and paw prints, and so on. It is, indeed, uniquely personal, amusing and charmingly carried out. In another garden I saw concrete casts made from egg boxes, which provided textured surfaces for rectangular plant containers and plinths on which objets trouvés were placed. A New Jersey gardener made casts of his footprints, which became stepping stones — fortunately, he had large feet. And if this were not sufficient, weatherproof woolly ‘sheep’, concrete ‘cows’, and of course gnomes of both good and ill-humoured character, have all been seen in gardens. And why not?

You will like some gardens more than others. This in itself can be very helpful, as it is often only by rejecting some ideas that you come to recognize what you really want. I would suggest that clarity of vision is the key: deciding what character of garden most appeals to you, as well as fulfils your requirements, is the first stage of the design process. Once identified, staying with this so that there is a ‘wholeness’ to the design will produce the greatest reward. There are many ideas to choose from and detailed images often overlap, but initial clear thinking will help a great deal when creating your own utopia.

Some of the gardens were expensive to make while others were not. Some were designed professionally and others, with equal flair, by non-professionals and you will have your own ideas on this. In some cases expensive contractors carried out the work and in others the owners themselves set to, laid every slab and planted every plant. The options are here to see, and I hope that there are styles and ideas in this Small Garden Section which will appeal to every gardener and indeed prove inspirational.

For more ideas on small garden designs, click this link.


06. June 2011 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Small Gardens | Tags: | Comments Off on Designing Small Gardens


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